As they get older, many men typically experience gradual loss of bone mass. Our bones are naturally being constantly broken down and replaced but, as we age, sometimes the body can't replace bone as quickly as it used to. This means some are at ever-increasing risk for osteoporosis — a condition that weakens bones. Now, a study in Missouri has renewed hope for men suffering from bone loss.
According to WebMD, around 2 million men in the U.S. have osteoporosis with studies showing that between 12 and 16 million men overall suffer from loss of bone density — a condition called osteopenia. The National Osteoporosis Foundation reports that as many as one in four men over age 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis and that men older than 50 are more likely to do so than they are to get prostate cancer. Though more women than men suffer from the debilitating condition, men are more likely than women to die within a year of breaking a hip because of problems related to the break. Hope for those that live with the condition, however, might now have arrived.
A new study by researchers at the University of Missouri (UM) found that certain types of exercises — including those involving weight-lifting and jumping — improve bone density in active, healthy, middle-aged men when they are built into an exercise routine lasting at least six months. The study was published in the journal Bone.
The study looked at 38 physically active, middle-aged men who each completed a year-long program of either weight-lifting or jumping. As part of their programs, participants completed 1 to 2 hours of targeted exercises per week and took calcium and vitamin D supplements throughout the training. Bone mass was measured at the beginning of the study, again after 6 months and once more at the end of the year. The scientists took sophisticated X-ray scans of the whole body as well as others of areas commonly at risk from bone loss — hips and lumbar spines.
The researchers found the bone mass of the whole body and lumbar spine significantly increased after six months of completing the weight-lifting or jumping programs, and this increase was maintained at 12 months. Hip-bone density only increased among those who completed the weight-lifting program. In addition, the researchers say, the study results do not mean that all types of weight lifting will help improve bone mass — specific, targeted exercises are necessary to show results.
"Weight-lifting programs exist to increase muscular strength, but less research has examined what happens to bones during these types of exercises," says Pam Hinton, associate professor and director of nutritional sciences graduate studies in the MU Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. "Our study is the first to show that exercise-based interventions work to increase bone density in middle-aged men with low bone mass who are otherwise healthy. These exercises could be prescribed to reverse bone loss associated with aging."
"Only the bone experiencing the mechanical load is going to get stronger, so we specifically chose exercises that would load the hip and the spine, which is why we had participants do squats, dead-lifts, lunges and the overhead press," says Hinton. "Also, the intensity of the loading needs to increase over time to build strength. Both of the training programs gradually increased in intensity, and our participants also had rest weeks. Bones need to rest to continue to maximize the response."
Throughout their training programs, participants were asked to rate any pain and fatigue they felt after completing the exercises. Participants initially reported minimal pain and fatigue and even these ratings decreased over the year. Hinton says individuals who want to use similar training programs to improve bone density should consider their current activity levels and exercise preferences as well as time and equipment constraints. It goes without saying that, if you are considering a change in your exercise and fitness regime, it's always best to consult a health professional first — particularly if your bones are at risk.
We have reported on exciting new treatments for bone loss before but, as Hinton reminds us, prevention is often better than cure — simple steps now can lead to big benefits in the future. "Individuals don't typically have to know they have heart disease, high blood pressure or pre-diabetes to start exercising," she says. "Similarly, individuals don't have to know they have osteoporosis to start lifting weights. The interventions we studied are effective, safe and take 60-120 minutes per week to complete, which is feasible for most people. Also, the exercises can be done at home and require minimal exercise equipment, which adds to the ease of implementing and continuing these interventions."